Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Building an Economy for a Living Earth

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Building an Economy for a Living Earth

By Patricia M. DeMarco

April 5, 2017

            The distinguishing feature of man’s activities is that they have almost always          been undertaken with a viewpoint of short-range gain, without considering either       their impact on the earth or their long range effect upon ourselves.

            Rachel Carson[i]

My generation heard President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon. Seeing the blue, green and white swirled marble of the earth from the perspective of space marked a paradigm shift in our time. For some, this represented the first step on the conquest of yet another frontier, and early speculation about colonizing the moon abounded. Others saw the earth from the distance of space and recognized the fragility of our position. Astronaut Frank Borman of Apollo 8 said, “I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape . . . . It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.”[1]

Everywhere we look around us we see evidence of our civilization pressing against the limits of the critical resources of the planet. Our time marks a critical turning point for preserving the living system of our earth as a regenerative, bountiful and productive ecosystem. As a species, humans have reached the level of dominating and overtaking the natural world through exploitation, extraction and consumption, burning through natural resources and leaving massive amounts of trash and destruction in our wake. The earth now bears the scars of hundreds of years of such abuse. It is time to recognize the limits to such profligate behavior, and take a different direction. The age of using technology for the conquest of nature must yield to the age of biology, using technology to live in harmony with nature to preserve and regenerate the life support system of the living earth.

Four human behaviors since the industrial revolution have driven our way of living out of balance with natural systems. We consume resources beyond what can be generated by the land we live on. We drive our economy on continuously expanding growth in consumption. We fail to control population growth while using technology to extend life. We generate waste that poisons our life support system. The consequences of these actions in our energy system, food system and materials system, are not compatible with sustaining a living planet.

We have reached this condition by allowing human inventiveness in conquering nature to proceed without restraint. From the earliest of times, human’s ability to manipulate and control the conditions presented in nature contributed to our survival. But once industrialization began, the ability to manipulate natural systems unbalanced the natural flow of energy and materials. It is time, now that we have begun to understand the elegant complexity of natural ecosystems, to take lessons from the natural world to craft our way forward. We must restructure our economy and our civilization to preserve and restore the robust resilience of the natural living world.

To begin thinking about structuring our economy along the principles of an ecosystem, it is important to understand how an ecosystem works. Any area of nature that includes living organisms and non-living substances interacting to exchange materials between the living and non-living parts is an ecological system, or ecosystem.[2] There are many kinds of ecosystems around the world, and at least six major distinct ecosystems within the continental United States, recently mapped by the U.S. Geologic Survey.[3] But all ecosystems operate with four basic constituents.

Ecosystems, whether they are aquatic around ponds and streams or oceans and coast, or whether they are of the forests, grasslands and deserts, all have these four essential parts, and all are circular. The producers convert essential materials into forms that can be used by consumers, and the decomposers return them to the system for use again. The entire process is powered by the sun, and connected by the water in its various forms. Temperature, altitude, and the amount of moisture available shape the different expressions of ecosystems, and determine the number and kinds of species of producers, consumers and decomposers present. The inter-relationships among these parts have evolved into complex food webs coterminous with the evolution of conditions over geologic time. Adaptations and adjustments emerged gradually over millions of years as conditions changed.

Albatross killed by eating plastic debris

Modern ecosystems universally bear the mark of human influence, because the effects of human activity are dispersed around the globe, introducing man-made materials and shifting the balance of natural ecosystems by rapidly adding synthetic materials and the combustion products of fossilized organic materials extracted from the crust of the earth to the atmosphere. Faced with rapidly changing elemental conditions, many species are unable to adapt, and mass extinctions are predicted for our time.[4][5]

The focus of human inventiveness and creativity up to now has used science and technology for increasingly intrusive ways to extract resources from the earth to consume for energy and raw materials for production. The quest for access to and control over the distribution of natural resources extracted from the earth drives our civilization. We have given little consideration to replacing natural resources, or to preserving the ecosystems from which the resources have been wrenched. Our economy takes raw materials to make goods for consumers to buy, and the waste and post-use materials are discarded as trash. This is a linear flow of resources exactly contrary to the operation of ecosystems. However, ecological limits to growth apply to the human constructed economy. Our model is not sustainable, because we are changing the conditions of the non-living and living parts of the human ecosystem, the living planet earth.

The economy defined in this process depends on drawing down natural resource reserves and using economic or physical warfare to take over resources. Power, resources and economic control become concentrated among the few with decreasing quality of life for many. We see this result not only between different countries but also within the United States. The concentration of wealth to the top 5% of the population has occurred with increasing disparity between the conditions experienced by the most wealthy and the least wealthy people.[6] This condition seeds instability, increasing unrest, and stress to the fabric of society. The economic model based on extraction- consumption- waste increases the inequity among people, decreases the quality of life of many people, and increases the conditions for revolt. This economic model also decreases the capacity of natural ecosystems to function in providing the conditions necessary for our life support system.

The critical feature of natural ecosystems is the dynamic equilibrium established among the different parts. Rather than a linear raw material to trash model, ecosystems operate in circular patterns, a steady-state where the waste or output from one level becomes the input or supply for others, and the energy source that drives the process is constantly renewable as long as the solar system exists. The earth’s major nutrients – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen – are all cycled and recycled in living systems.[7]

To shift our entire economic premise from one based on extraction and exploitation of natural resources to one based on regeneration, system preservation and enhancing the ecological infrastructure requires a change in thinking more than a change in technology. We can build our whole economy around principles of resource preservation, recovery and re-use. This approach cultivates the concept of an economy based on a dynamic equilibrium, rather than an economy based on indefinitely expanding growth.

One major initiative that can shape a more sustainable way forward involves re-defining the structure of the economy away from a model driven by corporate profit motive to one based on corporations operating for social benefit. The New Economy Movement has several manifestations, all gaining momentum in different ways. According to Gar Alperovitz, one of the leaders of the New Economy Movement, “Over the past few decades, a deepening sense of the profound ecological challenges facing the planet and growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings have fueled an extraordinary amount of experimentation by activists, economists and socially minded business leaders. … As the threat of a global climate crisis grows increasingly dire and the nation sinks deeper into an economic slump for which conventional wisdom offers no adequate remedies, more and more Americans are coming to realize that it is time to begin defining, demanding and organizing to build a new-economy movement.”[8]

The movement seeks an economy that is increasingly green and socially responsible, and one that is based on rethinking the nature of ownership and the growth paradigm that guides conventional policies.[9] As frustration with the wealth concentration in the top 1% of the economy increases, a wave of community wealth building institutions has begun to swell across the country. People are joining together through a variety of forms such as public, community or employee-owned businesses to meet local needs and thus regain a sense of democratic control. Community development corporations, community banks, social enterprises, community land trusts and employee-owned business and cooperatives emerge as the instruments for building community wealth. Worker owned businesses now include manufacturers, retailers and a number of non-profit organizations. Community Development Corporations can now be found in nearly every major city across the United States. Once limited to redeveloping blighted areas following urban riots or rural neglect, these CDCs produced over 1.6 million units of affordable housing nationwide over the last two decades.[10]

All of these institutions pool capital in ways that build wealth, create living-wage jobs, and anchor those jobs in communities.[11] One of the most significant aspects of this growing movement is the challenge it presents to corporate power. Because the driving imperative in the new economy movement is social benefit, not corporate shareholder profit, the possibility of building a balance against the corporate profit-driven politics of the 20th century is growing. Not since the days of unionized labor pressing for social justice and fairness in distribution of wealth between corporations and workers has there been such a strong voice for the public interest.

The success of businesses and communities that purposefully choose sustainability as a course for building the future shows that the spiral of infinite growth and infinite resource extraction can be transformed. Models of viable, even thriving, economic and social communities illustrate the way forward.

A new economy locally centered and locally invested springs up here in Pittsburgh, and in communities across the country and around the world. Corporations operating for social benefit, not stockholder profit, expand the distribution of wealth among worker-owners. Well being of the community is measured in terms of beneficial economic activity, health of the environment, social equity, and cultural diversity.

 

This essay is condensed from a chapter in the forthcoming book by Patricia M. DeMarco: “Pathways to Our Sustainable Future” with The University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.

This work is funded by the W. Clyde and Ida Mae Thurman Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

 

Endnotes

Rachel Carson “Of Man and The Stream Of Time” June 12, 1962. Commencement address. Scripps College. Claremont, CA. (monograph)Rachel Carson “Of Man and The Stream Of Time” June 12, 1962. Commencement address. Scripps College. Claremont, CA. (monograph)

[1] Frank Borman, Apollo 8, press reports, 10 January 1969.

[2] Eugene P. Odum. Fundamentals of Ecology. 2nd Ed. 1959. Philadelphia. W. B. Saunders Co. Page 10.

[3]   Roger Sayre, Patrick Comer, Harumi Warner, and Jill Cress. A New Map of Standardized Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Conterminous United States. Professional Paper 1768. 2009. U S Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of the Interior. 17 Pages.

[4] Elizabeth Kolbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt & Company, LLC. New York. 2014.

[5] E. O. Wilson. “The Future of Life.” The John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment. 2nd National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment. December 6, 2001. Washington, D.C.

[6] US Statistics on wealth distribution from 1900 to 2015

[7] William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. New York. 2002. Page 92.

[8] Gar Alperovitz. “The New Economy Movement.” The Nation. June 13, 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/160949/new-economy-movement Accessed May 21, 2015.

[9] Gar Alperovitz. “The New Economy Movement.” The Nation. June 13, 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/160949/new-economy-movement Accessed May 21, 2015.

[10] Gar Alperovitz. “The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System.” In: Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. 2014. Island Press. Washington D.C. Page 196.

[11] Gar Alperovitz. “The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System.” In: Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. 2014. Island Press. Washington D.C. Page 195.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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